by Zoë Sharp
More years ago than I care to recall, I used to watch a regular TV drama call The Champions about three agents for a shadowy international law enforcement agency called Nemesis! In fairness, the exclamation mark may not have been part of the official title, but every time anyone said the name, it definitely seemed to have one attached. Nemesis! were based in Geneva. You knew this because of a badly back-projected shot of the cast against the giant Geneva fountain, the Jet d’Eau, in the opening credits.
The basic premise was that in the first episode, three agents of Nemesis (just take the ! as read, will you?) Richard Barrett, Sharron Macready and Craig Stirling, played by William Gaunt, Alexandra Bastedo, and Stuart Damon, are in a plane crash in the Tibetan mountains. They are rescued by an ancient sect of monks who not only nurse them back to health but, for reasons of their own, also bestow upon the trio various superhuman talents. ESP, precognition, superior strength, speed, etc.
So, every week this fearless trio undertook a different vitally important assignment in a different corner of the globe. The assignment always saw them utilising their unique powers, whilst hiding their abilities from their enemies and their incredibly dim-witted boss, Tremayne. "So, Craig, exactly how many minutes did you manage to hold your breath under water …?"
(Stick with me on this – I think I know where I’m going with it, honest…)
Recently, somebody lent us the complete series on DVD and it was much funnier than I ever remember. Sadly, it was not intended to be a comedy, but Tremayne’s wig appeared to be constructed from ginger Astroturf and could not have looked any more artificial if it had come equipped with a chin strap – maybe that was the purpose of the also-obviously-fake beard he wore. And despite the numerous exotic locations called for in the storylines, they only seemed to actually have three sets – submarine, country house and underground lair. These did duty for just about anywhere, from small South American dictatorships, to the Australian Outback, to the Arctic, inter-cut with what was patently stock footage.
In my defence for taking weekly enjoyment in what might sound like the shonkiest bit of TV fluff going, I should point out that when the original series came out, I was about four. Not exactly of an age and level of sophistication where slightly dubious production values – not to mention a good deal of overacting – were what caught my eye.
I loved it.
I can still remember sitting utterly glued to the TV set in my grandmother’s living room, twisting myself into absolute knots of desperation as I watched the characters attempt to extricate themselves from whatever apparently hopeless predicament they’d got themselves into, in time for the closing credits. And my grandmother would always reassure me with the same words.
"But nothing terrible can possibly happen to them," she’d say, adding with the perfect logic of grandmothers everywhere, "It can’t – they’re on again next week."
And, of course, although it never seemed to reassure me much at the time, she was quite right. They always beat the bad guys and lived to fight another day.
Just like a series character.
(See, I told you I knew where this was going.)
When you pick up an ongoing series, you do so in the knowledge that the characters you’re going to read about – those you’ve come to care about – will survive past the final page. Conan Doyle did his best to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but was forced by the resultant public outcry to come up with a way of him surviving his encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and go on to further adventures. Of course, Lee Child has famously promised that he’s going to kill off Jack Reacher in the final instalment of his series, but until we reach that book – and we hope it’s not for years yet – we know he’s still going to be around to walk off into the sunset.
In a standalone, on the other hand, you can reach the final page to find it’s not so much a case of Last Man Standing, as no man left standing at all. And anybody who’s read any of Duane Swierczynski‘s wonderful visceral novels will testify to that one.
Our next-door neighbour, who’s a big reader of mystery/thriller/adventure novels, comes round occasionally to have a browse through our book collection and borrow a few books, and he won’t read series. He claims this is because he likes a totally self-contained story with no loose ends, rather than because he prefers the uncertainty of not knowing if the main protagonist and the ongoing surrounding cast will make it to the end of the story.
But do they always?
We’ve talked before here about how much can you progress and grow and change your series protagonist from one book to the next, but I want to pose a question one step further. Can you have sudden cataclysmic change in an ongoing series and get away with it?
This week’s Word of the Week is borborygmus, which is the rumbling sounds made by the stomach, caused by the movement of food, gases and digestive juices as they migrate from the stomach into the upper part of the small intestine. The average body makes two gallons of digestive juices a day.
Just to apologise in advance, by the way – I’m out on a shoot all day Thurs, but will answer all comments when I get back in the evening!
Define “get away with it”.
A writer acquaintance of mine with big league sales killed off a major series character around, IIRC, Book 5. Reaction on the fan boards ranged from angry to borderline psychotic.
I really think a large majority of readers want your characters to live in Nerf World, where nothing really bad ever happens to anyone they care about, only to the disposable walk-ons (Redshirts, for all you Star Trek geeks out there). They want a Janet Evanovich kind of world, where Stephanie never takes any real damage and the only real suspense is which hunk she sleeps with. (Perhaps I’m being unfair; I only got to book 4. I’ll be happy to be wrong if any Evanovich fans care to enlighten me).
OTOH, if cataclysmic change is what the story requires, you can “get away with it” on a dramatic level. In fact, you’re cheating the story and the reader if you do otherwise.
SAFE AND SOUND SPOILER:****I knew about 3/4 of the way through writing SAFE AND SOUND that it wasn’t going to end with everyone happily riding off into the sunset together. There was no way, given the characters, that they were going to come out of the events of that book without deep scars. My readers have been remarkably forgiving; no psycho “I’m burning all your books” e-mails. It might be different if I had millions of readers.
“Can you have sudden cataclysmic change in an ongoing series and get away with it?”
I sure hope so, or I’ll never get my book published and still manage a series with it. The protag is okay, but his companions? Well, let’s hope one day you get to find out….
I love series myself, but the author’s imagination is critical. If we know Elvis Cole (for example) is going to survive, we need new and interesting ways for him to get away with it. Standalones don’t have that problem, as everyone is vulnerable.
I disagree with Zoe’s friend on one point. I don’t think even a standalone has to be perfectly self-contained. The best ones end much like The Wire: It wasn’t like the story was *over*, more like they just weren’t going to let us watch their lives anymore.
I certainly hope a series can kill off an occasional principal. I still have hopes for the series my agent is shopping, and one of the ways I hope to maintain interest is to keep an ensemble around the protag, and occasionally lose one.
An author has to be really good for me to accept killing off THE protagonist. I rarely enjoy books like that because I become so invested in the characters that the hero needs to survive. Take THE STAND (my favorite book of all time)– almost everyone important is killed off in the story EXCEPT Stu and Fran. I can accept with losing Larry and the others BECAUSE Stu survived.
In my debut novel, which is a loosely connected series but more stand alone than a series, I killed off a main character, but not the hero. Some readers were very upset, but it had to happen. I’m sorry. I felt really bad about it, but I didn’t kill him truly–the villain did. But in this book, I established that anyone is vulnerable–except the hero and heroine, which is part of the the story promise in romantic suspense.
In series, I was very disappointed in one series I loved with a PI protagonist who had a long-distance relationship with a cop. It was not a true RS, but the human connection and the problems they had with the long-distance relationship made the PI real to me–someone I could root for. Then he was killed. And not even as part of a story–she just gets a call that he was killed in the line of duty. What the–? It didn’t fit and it made me mad. The stories were good, interesting, but it was the characters I really enjoyed–and now one of them, and the personal conflict, was just gone. She’s not publishing anymore.
There are exceptions. THE DEPARTED (a movie) couldn’t have happened any other way, though a lot of my romance writer friends were very upset at the ending.
“Can you have sudden cataclysmic change in an ongoing series and get away with it?”
Ask Karin Slaughter next year. I think I had to coax myself to get out of bed after the major funk she sent me into with the ending of Beyond Reach. Mad, irritated, didn’t see the point in it, etc, etc, etc.But when Genesis comes out in 2009…I’ll be out there buying it the first day to see where she’s taking me.
I’ve been thinking about this subject quite a bit lately, Zoe. Ever since I finished the first book in the new series, I’m wondering how long I’ll write Sasha.
I don’t have a witty rejoinder today, just gratitude for all the comments. They’re giving me food for thought and I’m mighty hungry.
Zoe, I remember that show and loved it.
Whether a character has any major changes in the course of a series just depends on the character and the series…..I know that sounds like a cop-out..lol.
I mean, McGee and Marlowe never changed, and I don’t see Reacher changing any time soon, but Bosch and Cole have deepened a lot over the course of their series. So do we love the series character any less for not changing or do we like knowing that they are not going to and will remain a safe habour?
Depends on the series and the character.
The vulnerability of all the characters in a book is part of the reason I write (and prefer to read) stand alones. I want to be kept guessing all the way to the last page and knowing that there will be another book with that protagonist out next year takes away some of that trepidation.
I don’t know if writers can successfully (from a marketing and fan base point of view) kill off major characters, but I applaud their efforts to do so all the same.
Hm, how do I define “getting away with it”?
I suppose what I mean is, does it spoil a series for people? Does it make readers send you those “I’m burning all your books” emails?
And your answer seems to be … no ;-]
I suppose it’s different if you set the series up from the start with the fact that peripheral characters – and by that I mean characters the reader might have thought were going to be recurring sidekicks – might die at any moment.
I suppose it would be different if you went along for several books, reassuring the reader that everyone important was going to survive – the Star Trek redshirts of Dusty’s comment – and then suddenly killed one of them off.
It is a knotty one, isn’t it?
Interesting premise. I know when I wrote ROAD KILL, which was about a group of motorcyclists, I knew at the outset that one of the group wasn’t going to make it to the end of the book, but I deliberately put off making the decision about who that was going to be until I reached that part of the story. In other words, he was not written in with ‘victim’ in mind.
But, equally, he was a character who had not appeared in a previous book, so the reader had no more or less invested in him than any of the other first-time characters.
Of course, you can always do what Kat Richardson did and kill your protagonist on the first page.
But, to quote Monty Python, she got better.
Great points. Thank you for giving this topic such thought. I agree that the killing off of the absent cop love interest does seem a bit pointless when done off camera, as it were, but I don’t think I’ve read the series you’re referring to – or certainly not the book where that happens – so I can’t comment first hand.
Actually, now I think about it, technically I did kill off my main protag. After Charlie’s been shot twice in SECOND SHOT (no plot spoilers there, it happens on the first page) she is told that her heart stopped while the paramedics were working on her at the scene.
Does that count?
I think we’re back to Allison’s comment that the writer has to be good to get away with it, and if Karin Slaughter’s got you already queuing up to buy next year’s book, that answers its own question ;-]
I admit, though, I’d struggle to accept the death of a major character if I couldn’t see a point in it. Although, as Dusty pointed out, if the story calls for it, and you can’t quite bring yourself to do it, that’s as much of a disappointment.
It’s sometimes difficult to keep finding something to propel a series forwards, if you’ve made the decision to let your main protag grow. Having a break may either tell you it’s time to move on, or you’ll come back to Sasha with renewed enthusiasm.
We hope so!
Very succinctly put.
I think if you’ve set the series up for change from the start, you can get away with it, but to lull people into a false sense of security, and then pull the rug out from under them in some dramatic way could prove too much of a shock to the system.
A friend of mine went for a halfway house approach, in which she took a minor character from one book and made them the main protagonist of the next, so it was sort of a loosely based series, but where more or less anything goes.
And I loved the Dick Francis books, which were not a series as such, but certainly had such a distinctive voice that they felt like one somehow.
“Of course, you can always do what Kat Richardson did and kill your protagonist on the first page. But, to quote Monty Python, she got better.”
Re: Dusty’s comment about Star Trek “redshirts:”
A friend and I once came up with the term “Star Trek Disease” as a diagnosis for any character who we could tell in advance was not destined to survive the next plot development, often because the character served no other role than to be the next plot development.
Mr. Rhoades,She turned her into a newt?
BURN HER ANYWAY!!!
I’m struggling with this very issue myself. I don’t want to say more, but it’s something that happens and I’m not sure where it’s going to lead.
Greg Rucka has done an absolutely brilliant job of evolving his main character, Atticus Kodiak. I highly recommend this series. He got me thinking about Taylor in a new way and helped me figure out where I wanted to go with my own series. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of a character changing but not changing.
I’m going to take you all back to the TV series MASH. (See, JD, back to military)
Then they did the unthinkable when Radar came into the OR and reported that Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea Of Japan.
That was pretty drastic. And then another blow with the departure of Trapper John and then Frank Burns. But they came up with outstanding new characters, B.J. Hunnicutt, Col. Potter and Charles Emerson Winchester III. Things went downhill with the departure of Radar, but the show was on a decline by then.
I remember the uproar when they announced Blake’s death. But the show survived and thrived for eight more years.
I think it’s all in the execution.
RE: redshirt syndrome.
It always used to be the case whenever you watched a film set on a WWII RAF station. As soon as one of the pilots said, “You know, as soon as this demmed war is over, I’m going to marry that gel of mine …” you knew immediately – dead.
I am so behind that I don’t know what happened to which of Karin Slaughter’s characters (DON’T TELL ME!!!!) but the reason I’ve read more of her series than of any other except Agatha Christie and Michael Connelly is that I’ve always completely believed that one of Slaughter’s characters could kill herself or get herself killed at any second. It gives the whole world a dark realism that keeps me coming back, even when I’m not a series reader at all.
Jake – don’t get me started on the Python quotes … ;-]
Can’t wait to see where you take Taylor next!
I think TV series are totally different from series novels. Actors get bored, or get written out, or decide they’re being typecast and, if the series is successful, there are a lot of other things at stake.
Deciding to write out a major character is (usually) the writer’s decision and responsibility.
I think we’re back to this business of setting out the ground rules for a series from the start. If you go any author’s books knowing that sudden death on a massive scale is a possibility, it won’t jolt you as a reader out of that vital suspension of disbelief that we have all have to enter in order to read any work of fiction.
If, however, you’ve always enjoyed happy endings from that particular author before, and suddenly the new series book ends in a bloodbath, it’s always going to cause major upset.
“Oh but sir, it’s only a wafer (pronounced WAF-er) thin mint.”
Great topic, Zoë–I’d had a talk with my publisher this summer about this very thing, because something dramatic happens to Bobbie Faye at the end of book 2, and it’s not something that someone would just easily recover from. There’s darker stuff in three, and I am probably pushing that edge of comedy (can it still be funny if what’s happening is heartbreaking? and scary as hell?). Dunno, but that’s where the characters are going. And there are things that are not going to work out well for a couple of the characters over the long haul. (I have always viewed their individual stories as tragedies embedded in this comedy.) No telling if it’ll work for the readers, but it was where the characters had to go.
I’m willing to forgive an author killing off a main character if it’s done in a way commensurate with that character’s importance, and we get to see the other characters dealing with the fallout. I think, though, that if it’s a continuing series, the author needs to plan ahead and introduce other characters who’ll take the weight of the now missing character. Not right off, mind, but who have something about them that is welcoming and makes the reader feel like this is the ebb and flow of life. I think in a series, it’s hard to plan that far ahead, though.
Okay, everyone is mentioning recent shows and books, but let’s look at one of the most famous writers of all time: William Shakespeare. He seemed to have his main protags die all the time, or at least have a downward spiral: (in the tragedies anyway); Take for example:MACBETHROMEO AND JULIETOTHELLOJULIUS CAESARHAMLET
In all of these plays, the pricipals die. So yes, it can be done. But to be fair, I realize that the landscape has changed a lot since WIll’s day. I’m just saying.
And let’s not forget that in TV the writers can be written out (fired) just as easily as the characters. And often are. Which has a major impact on the series, whether the execs ever acknowledge it or not.
Skipping with light heart back to my novel, now…
“It always used to be the case whenever you watched a film set on a WWII RAF station. As soon as one of the pilots said, “You know, as soon as this demmed war is over, I’m going to marry that gel of mine …” you knew immediately – dead.”
Your statement reminds me of Guy, a character in Galaxy Quest (a movie parody of the Star Trek phenomenon). He mentions in one scene how he knows he’s going to die. When another character disagrees, Guy cries that he WILL be killed because he doesn’t have a last name…that characters without a last name and just stuck into an episode are always the ones to die.
I prefer the “Guy” characters to be killed in a series. I get too invested in the lives of the main characters. However, I don’t have a problem with a relative of one of the primary characters being murdered. Somebody’s got to get it!
Funnily enough I was thinking of this as I was weeding a gravel path yesterday. So it was a little strange to come across this topic today. I was also thinking when an author kills off a much loved character is this weeding a full canvas, or is it creating an opening for the main characters growth?
My musings took me to consider an author that did kill off a character in the last couple of pages,(where the reader usually thinks the story rhythm is winding down)…and bam.For one reason or another I hadn’t read much of this series, I didn’t take it on board as a betrayal, but more as this is a violent world, with characters that deal with all levels of violence professionally and even the quiet domestic moments have the possibility of death or injury at their core.To me it fit with that world view context. I can only compliment the author on strong writing that had people feeling so strongly about the death of this character.Plus I can see multiple ways that the main character may go in the next book.
As a reader I don’t expect that just because a character is loved, they wear a teflon coat that magically protects them from book to book.In a straight romance I would. However this is mystery, crime, suspense… anything could happen.
Toni,(can it still be funny if what’s happening is heartbreaking? and scary as hell?)um based on my life experiences, laughter at the most inappropriate times is what helps keep me going.
As for the red shirts, I’ve noticed that it’s a bit fatal to look too happy in fiction…to be looking forward to retirement in two weeks and go fishing.May as well paint a target on your chest.
“That parrot wouldn’t go vroom if you put forty thousand volts up it … it’s dead. It is an ex parrot. It has ceased to be.”
Terrific response – very measured. I agree you’re facing a difficult choice but, ultimately, you have to go with what you feel is right on an artistic level as well as a commercial one. If that’s the way the storylines are heading, then trying to force them onto a lesser path would always feel like a compromise to you, and I think you have too much integrity as a writer to be happy with that.
Thanks for bringing up the Bard. It’s very rare that Shakespeare and I appear in the same place at (more or less) the same time …
These are all wonderful dramatic examples of tragic death on a magnificent scale, but – and here I admit my knowledge of Shakespeare’s work gets a little shaky (no pun intended) – but none of them are intended as series. Killing off main protags and major supporting players in standalones is somewhat easier.
Just a thought ;-]
Changing the writers mid-series must be an even tougher prospect than changing the characters. Glad I don’t have to face that one.
Also skipping back to my novel slightly more lightheartedly now ;-]
‘Galaxy Quest’ is one of my favourite movies and yes, I remember that scene with Guy, who doesn’t want to be on the away mission (because he’ll die) but also doesn’t want to be left alone on the ship (because he’ll die).
How close a relative?
“I was also thinking when an author kills off a much loved character is this weeding a full canvas, or is it creating an opening for the main characters growth?”
What a great way to put it. I suppose it could be both. If a character has reached the end of their story arc, and you can’t find anything new to do with them, then maybe it’s time for them to make a swift and tragic exit?
When Karin Slaughter killed one of her lead characters at the end of the sixth book of her Grant County series, the overall reaction of her readers was extreme displeasure. (You only need to look at the comments on Amazon.) She tried very hard to promote an understanding of her reasoning by posting a letter on her web site with an explanation.
For people who read to get away, for education, for entertainment, for whatever a particular author has done for them before, the writer of a series has created a ‘family’ for the reader. When something happens to that family, a fan of the series needs time to mourn – for both the character and the nature of the series. It isn’t what they had grown to expect any more. That series is now like real life – which isn’t fair. The immediate reaction will be to think the author is not being fair either. In fiction, lots of readers want good to triumph all the time. It isn’t realistic, but that can be a big part of fiction’s pull.
Can an author make the ending of a character’s life lead to a growth for those remaining? It’s a tough job to both make the audience want to come back after they know they now can’t trust the author and to provide a significant enough story line to keep them if they actually pick up the following book.
Excellent points! And I agree, it’s like inviting the reader to play a game they think they’re very familiar with, and then announcing there’s a sudden change in the rules …
“You know, as soon as this demmed war is over, I’m going to marry that gel of mine …” you knew immediately – dead.”
The movie “Hot Shots” also did an excellent parody of this with a character who was a fighter pilot who was always talking about his girl back home. The pilot’s call sign was “Goner.”
Thank you, Zoe for resurrecting memories of that tv show for both hubby and me.
I remember almost nothing about the show except the opening sequence and that Lake Geneva shot. Hubby being more elderly (he’s a whole year older than me), remembered details of the show.
And isn’t it fun when you see an actor from a very old show and recognise him as such and such from another show.
In our case Richard Gaunt. The bloke who played the grandfather in that series starring Penelope Keith where they had to look after their grandchildren after the parents were killed in a crash.
Some lunchtime nostalgia for us. And now we’re racking our brains trying to remember the name of the other show without resorting to Google.
Point taken, Zoe. I just wanted to bring Shakespeare into conversation somewhere :-]
Zoe…ya pulled out the parrot sketch on me. Ooooh.
“Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before I went to bed. Drink a cup of sulfuric acid. Work twenty-nine hours a day down Mill, ‘unpaid men honored for permission to come to work,’ and when we got home, our Dad and our Mother would kill us and dance about on our graves, singin’ Hallelujah.”
“And you try and tell the young people of today that. They won’t believe you!”
Zoe, the relative can be very close…husband, sister, father, cousin, aunt. (But in my writing world, never children…too close to the reality in my expanded family.)
Galaxy Quest is one of my favorite movies too. Every time I see it, I start crying because I’m laughing so hard.
I know that both Dana Stabenow and Elizabeth George killed off fairly main characters, and both took serious flak for it, but true fans stayed with them. It does depend on how deftly it’s done, and how invested a reader is in the series.
The death in “Hunter’s Moon” blindsided me and I was weepy for quite some time. I knew there was to be a death in “With No One as Witness”, and I found myself bargaining all the way through it: “Please not Havers.” “Please not Havers or Lynley.” “Please not Havers or Lynley or. . .”
The characters have to grow and change in believeable ways after, though. They can’t come back in the next book undamaged. Should that happen, I know I’d walk away and not come back.
Dusty – how could I have forgotten that bit in ‘Hot Shots’?
My funniest memory of that film was when one of them flips his jet upside down and all this rubbish – burger wrappers and maps and all the kind of stuff you might find lying around in a car – drops into the canopy.
Only trouble was, after that I could never take Charlie Sheen seriously in anything …
I, too, can’t remember the show Richard Gaunt appeared in as the grandfather. I’ll have to look it up. I know Stuart Damon was in ‘General Hospital’ and Alexandra Bastedo had a very small part as the housekeeper at the party in ‘Batman Begins’ but blink and you’ll miss her.
“Point taken, Zoe. I just wanted to bring Shakespeare into conversation somewhere :-]”
And thank you for doing so!
Ah-ha – you see my Parrot Sketch and raise me a Four Yorkshiremans, hm?
OK, Jake, you asked for this ….
“When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that’s what you’re going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.”
It seems from all the comments to this post tht killing off any character who is very close to the main protag will always have more resonance for some readers than others and there has been a huge amount of discussion about the deaths of children and animals in fiction.
Good points about Dana Stabenow and Elizabeth George. I think that although it might seem a drastic step for the writer to take, perhaps it’s better to introduce change than to let series go stale. Maybe some people would prefer to see the writer stop a series, or even take a break from it, rather than see that happen.
Oh Zoe…Swamp Castle? I give you a skit about four pompous men trying to one-up each other as I’m trying to one-up you, and the best you can do is Swamp Castle?
Well, at least you didn’t cop out with the Spanish Inquisition, I suppose. I mean really, “You can’t expect to weild supreme exectutive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you. Look, if I went ’round, sayin’ I was an emporer, just because some moistened bint ‘ad lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!”
I may not know photography, but I can keep this up all day. Speaking of which, you’re interested in…”photography, eh? ‘Photographs’, he asked [her] knowingly…snap-snap, grin-grin, wink-wink, nidge-nudge, say n’more?”:D
I’m with JT regarding Greg Rucka. Not only did he devise a life-changing experience for Atticus in Critical Space but Rucka may be the only writer who manages to kill off the occasional much-loved character yet rather than hating him for it, he has me thinking how right their death is for the story line.
I was lucky enough to read an early draft of next year’s Atticus Kodiak novel, Walking Dead – JT, it’s spectacular. You’re gonna love it.
Just some random thoughts at the end of this great discussion:
I don’t think anyone has mentioned yet the deaths of several fairly main characters in J.K. Rowling’s books. And those are “kids” books.
There have been some shockers by authors such as the previously mentioned Elizabeth George and Karin Slaughter. But I don’t think it has stopped me from reading a series because these are more prominent characters but not the true focus. I would think that if something as drastic as, say, killing off Kinsey Millhone and having the author introduce a new PI stepping in to take over the office would be a bit more than one could take.
Ok, I got mad at Susan Hill for the death of a character because it was a POV character. It didn’t stop me from reading the whole series thus far. And I know I read two books this year that did the same and I think they will be continuing as a series. But those authors set that potential up in the first book therefore there wasn’t the emotional investment *as much*. Another series I read had the protag completely in love with someone over three books who suddenly turned out to be a sibling (oh those naughty aristocrats and their playing with the servants) when I think the author found a better love interest for the lead and had to find a way for this previous love to go away but didn’t have the big messy death scene. It’s more torturous this way. Isn’t fiction fun?
Hi Zoe,Came to this post a bit late, but I hope you do see the comment.When it comes to protags, Michael Robotham did an unusual thing with his “series”. The first started with a psychologist as the main character – who suffers from Parkinson’s – and a copper on the point of retirement. With two such characters, the reader is alerted to the thought “Is this a standalone and if not, where can this series go?”Move on to book two and it’s the copper that takes the lead. Within that, there’s a female copper who gets a decent part and who becomes the main protag in book three.By book four, the psychologist is the main protag again, with the retired copper lending a hand.
I think the books have a good original feel to them because of this and the scene was set in the first novel: here we have a cast of characters and do expect some change.
Margaret Murphy’s The Dispossessed started the Rickman series and had an absolute powerhouse of a scene in the latter half which rocked to the core. The stability of all the reader had become comfortable with in the main characters, was shattered. And it certainly led to one character’s arc and development.
What do they have in common? The first novel gives the flavour and I believe this makes it easier to live with, but it also increases the expectation, perhaps, that the writer will deliver a curve ball and never settle for “settled”.
“Not knowing where this going” and/or a shock can certainly draw readers in. A tick-box formulaic approach can become a bore, although a cast of characters well-loved carries the expectation that the reader will be back with the familiar family in subsequent series books.
I believe that if you don’t start out with the shock factor or questions raised, it’s best to know your reader expectations before doing a U turn and heading for Land’s End as opposed to John O’Groats. Which does not, of course, rule out doing that U turn, as long as more readers are receptive than are not. But it’s also a risk and a challenge that could bring new readers – all to be weighed up. And it’s also a writer’s own consideration if they wish to take a series in another direction and develop. The publisher’s editor will have thoughts, as will the agent…
But whereas in the corporate world it is “Know Your Customer”, I believe that “Know Your Reader” applies to the writing world.
PS, Zoe,Loved your grandmother’s comment on The Champions, by the way! I don’t remember anyone saying that to me while I was trying to watch Dr Who from behind the sofa, using one eye only …
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